This month’s Crossover Corner explores triple threat training, stylistic differences across shows, and the reminder that through it all, singers need to breathe.
Crossover is happening everywhere, and I spent the summer getting my fill—my fill of classical music, musical theatre, opera, you name it! And for me, crossover recently meant crossing state lines. In fact, I’ve just arrived in New Jersey to see two voice students in a production of Rent at Papermill Playhouse. I’ve arrived early and have stopped off at a local library to do some writing. I’ll let you know how the performance was at the end of the column!
Now back to crossover in NYC. In mid June, I went on a weekend theatre bender which began on the West Side—literally and musically. The Met Orchestra gave their final performance of the season at Carnegie Hall, led by their Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin in a touching, sometimes explosive concert that began with iconic crossover repertoire—Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (which had its premiere there in 1961). After a rapturous and aggressive Tchaikovsky (Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture), star soprano Angel Blue and tenor Russell Thomas escorted the audience firmly back into operatic territory with act IV of Verdi’s Otello.
The next night, I headed back to Broadway to see a voice student in the post-opening night performance of Once Upon a One More Time (a.k.a. the Britney Spears musical). Nathan Levy is an alum of my Pace University BFA Musical Theatre voice studio and had made his Broadway debut just a year earlier a few doors down at the Music Box Theatre as Evan in Dear Evan Hansen. On this night, I saw him in the dual roles he created for the production: Prince Ebullient and Clumsy, helper of the princesses and the object of affection of Prince Erudite (played by Broadway favorite Ryan Steele).
As Prince Ebullient, Nathan dances his face off in choreography that instantly takes me back to junior year when “Baby One More Time” exploded through my high school. As expected, a Britney Spears-inspired musical is packed with high intensity and sensual choreography. Using it as a primary tool in interweaving fairy tales and the empowering of their respective princesses, the choreography is sensational and, at many times, jaw dropping. I was thrilled to see Nathan—who I’ve heard primarily from across a piano in a voice lesson—as one of these dazzling dancers.
While I made my way to the A train, I considered what Nathan had talked about at the stage door—the major differences for him in being in such a dance-heavy show. From my seat, Nathan’s triple-threat training was on fabulous and meticulous display. Yet while he made it look easy, this was still a major crossover experience for him within the context of musical theatre—especially when compared to a high-intensity vocal experience like “Waving through a Window” plus all of Evan Hansen’s other arias (that’s how I refer to them to my students).
Classically trained singers experience a similar form of crossover within the context of classical music and their own style of triple-threat skills (e.g., versatility of languages, style, and stage comportment)—be it toggling from oratorio to Puccini or from Monteverdi to George Crumb.
I asked Nathan to share a bit about his own experience with this in Musical Theatre Land, and he started with the rehearsal process, “The rehearsals were vastly different. DEH [Dear Evan Hansen] felt more fast and furious and singular because I was the only new person joining, so truly all eyes are on you. With OMT [Once Upon a One More Time], we all were creating the show together. The vocals in this show were much easier to tackle versus DEH. Although, I’ve been lucky that I was very familiar with the music in both shows well before joining them.”
“For OMT, I still do the same vocal warm-up that I did in DEH but a little more abbreviated. Because of the way the show flows, my body is already very warm and sweaty by the time I have to sing. I also have to physically warm up, which I also did in DEH but [that] was more abbreviated. This time around I truly need to warm up physically more than any other show I’ve done in the past.”
When we spoke, OMT had just had its official opening, and Nathan and his castmates were well into their 8-shows-a-week groove and doing “that thing” we’re all so familiar with hearing—the instruction to “Make it look easy!” On that topic, I asked Nathan about the start of this crossover experience for him—specifically, if there was any advice he’d go back and give himself during the first week of rehearsals for OMT.
He said, “Oh, wow—what a good question. I would tell my first week of rehearsal self to breathe. Remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. I also would say that the process of creating, changing, or originating a role and opening a brand new musical on Broadway is something not many people are fortunate enough to experience, so it all goes back to taking a breath, [taking] mental pictures, and savoring every moment.”
Nathan’s advice is like that of so many of the artists quoted in “Crossover Corner,” especially his advice to breathe and to savor the experience. Regardless of the all-too-familiar snare of perfectionism, be it self-imposed or contractually expected of us, zooming out and considering what we’re actually doing—telling stories evocatively through song, dance, and spoken word—is our primary purpose.
Considering our art making through the lens of a primary purpose has the power to loosen the tight grip of fear and imposter syndrome that can plague any musician, whether singing The Messiah arias for the 30th time or auditioning for a new Jason Robert Brown musical. Of course, this also applies to members of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra that I heard the other night at Carnegie Hall, toggling between the scores of Bernstein, Tchaikovsky, and Verdi—and the world premiere of a new piece by 33-year-old Matthew Aucoin.
My June weekend of shows concluded two blocks down from Carnegie Hall with a ravishing revival of Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza as part of the New York City Center Encores! series. Guettel’s Piazza is now 20 years old and includes songs synonymous with crossover repertoire and the artists who performed/recorded them first. Tony Award-winning leading ladies Kelli O’Hara and Victoria Clark have since become regarded as artists for classical singers to emulate when considering crossover repertoire.
Crossover is alive and flourishing in NYC and beyond, and classical singers and their teachers need not go to too far for examples onstage and instantly online. As for this voice teacher, I’m heartened and inspired by my musical theatre students—all of whom I instruct and train with hallmark tenets of the technique of appoggio—as they employ their hard-earned skills and agility to cross from show to show and score to score.
And I had the pleasure of hearing and seeing this first hand, once again, at the performance of Rent at Papermill Playhouse that I mentioned earlier. Rent took me back to junior year of high school, hearing music that’s been in my bones for 25+ years. Seeing a new production and hearing my students’ voices in this now standard repertoire was a form of crossover for me in itself. So I sat back, took a breath, and took mental pictures. Thank you for the advice, Nathan!